Saturday, February 22, 2014

(Another) Book Meme

Life has been busy of late (3 kids, dissertation, and all) and as you've probably noticed posting here hasn't been so much a thing.  Which is, I think, alright - not desirable, but acceptable and allowable.  Since my creative juices are being directed into working on Ye Olde Dissertation, what you'll get here is another book-related meme.  However much things change, the massive amount of time I spend reading remains relatively constant.

1) What book are you reading now?
"Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era" by James McPherson.  I realized that I knew frightfully little about one of the most formative American wars and, to remedy this ignorance, started hunting around for a good book.  Histories of the Civil War are prolific and it's the sort of historical event that almost cries out for a multivolume work to begin to address adequately.  Having insufficient time/interest to read a multivolume work, I came across numerous sources commending this book as the best single-volume history of the Civil War now available.  $9 on Amazon (for the Kindle; $15 for the paperback) is quite a reasonable price and so far I'm about 20% of the way through.  It's been very readable, engaging, and does not require a specialist's background in order to understand or appreciate the book.  So far I've particularly appreciated McPherson's emphasis on the fact that, although slavery played a large role in the conflict, it was the focus point to which there were many subsidiary causes.  As such, he's painted a more nuanced picture than the extremes of "The Civil War was about slavery" or "The Civil War was about states' rights".  Can't wait to read the remainder of the book.

2) What book did you just finish?
"The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard" by Stephen Jimenez.  This was of some personal interest since I lived in Fort Collins while doing my M.A. degree and I knew that Shepard had spent time there.  (After being found by the police, he was taken to the Poudre Valley Hospital which is located right by where I'd park my car to walk to campus.)  The author's thesis, overbriefly, is that Shepard wasn't killed by two men in a "gay panic" (as is commonly believed) but rather for more prosaic reasons involving meth.  As such, the book is work in the investigative journalism/true crime genre.  I found two parts of the book most interesting: First, apparently the author encountered persons who, for various reasons, didn't want Shepard's murder to be de-martyrized (if that's a word) from its perception as an anti-gay hate crime into a (no less tragic) drug-running crime.  Since I'm a philosopher, and philosophers pursue Truth, it is disappointing that some persons wouldn't want the full truth to be uncovered if it conflicted with their preferred narrative - disappointing, but perhaps not particularly surprising.  Second, I appreciated that, when witness accounts substantially conflicted (as they inevitably must in a 10+ year investigation involving hundreds of interviews), the author took pains to specify why he believed one account over against another.  Although I don't know much about investigative journalism, I hope this is a standard practice; regardless, it's a habit I'm glad the author integrated into his book.

3) What do you plan to read next?
Probably "The Sign of the Cross" by Francis de Sales.  I've a great fondness for de Sales (his "Catholic Controversies" was significant in my own conversion) and this is a new English translation of a short treatise he wrote on what the gesture we do before, during, and after the Mass means, its historic origins, and a defense against those Protestants who'd reject it.  (Its rejection is by no means universal among Protestants - I remember growing up in the Lutheran church that some persons during the service would do it frequently.)  Can't wait to read it; any time I've spent reading de Sales has never been wasted.

4) What book do you keep meaning to finish?
Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina".  I've got the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation (which is, for the record, excellent) but I just can't seem to slog my way through the story.  It's been a good few years since I've touched this book so at this point the odds of my actually finishing it are basically zero.

5) What book do you keep meaning to start?
This is a lame answer, but there aren't actually any books I've been consistently meaning to start.  If there's a book that's worth my time, it gets read in relatively short order (particularly since I'm a fast reader).  But there aren't really any outstanding books I've been putting off starting; if it's going to get read at all, it's in the queue and constant progress through the reading queue is being made.

6)  What is your current reading trend?
Ebooks, actually.  Of the last dozen books I've purchased, ten of them have been ebooks.  The Rollins were very kind and gave us Kindles which I've been making great use of.  I don't tend to do academic reading on them (notetaking abilities are pretty minimal and legible PDF rendering is pretty spotty), but in terms of pleasure reading it's nearly all been done on a Kindle.  Bonus: I can now take dozens of books on vacation in a reasonable amount of space (and the 2+ week battery life means I can rely on its lasting for the duration of a trip).  In terms of academic readings, I've been getting a lot better at using Dropbox to keep them all organized and accessible whenever and wherever I'm doing dissertation writing.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Book Meme

It's been awhile since I've seen this making the rounds on Facebook.  So I figure I'll offer up responses of my own.  To say what should be obvious, I'll exclude the Bible (since it would fit most categories below), I'll limit it to one book per category, and I won't put the same book in multiple categories (even though it might deserve it).


  • A book that changed your life: The Brothers Karamazov (Dostoevsky [Pevear/Volkhonsky translation])
  • A book that you've read more than once: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Phillip K. Dick)
  • A book that you'd want on a desert island: The Liturgy of the Hours.
  • A book that made you laugh: Father of the Bride (Edward Streeter)
  • A book that made you cry: The Fifth Son (Elie Wiesel)
  • A book that you wish had never been written: Mein Kampf ("My Struggle", Hitler)
  • A book that you hope someone will write: An update of Tocqueville's Democracy in America.
  • A book that you wish you had written: The Closing of the American Mind (Allan Bloom)
  • A book that you're currently reading: Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals (Kant)
  • A book that you've been meaning to read: Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, & Naturalism (Plantinga).

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Snow Day!

KU (the University of Kansas) is closed today because of snow.  Turns out they'll also be closed tomorrow!  This doesn't happen very often.  I started here in Fall 2009 and, since then, we've had 2 snow days.  (Campus has been closed other times, but most of them are during Christmas break when classes aren't in session anyways).  But back in Feb. 2011, we got a Tuesday and a Wednesday off for a big snowstorm.  And now we've had a Thursday off and we'll get a Friday off tomorrow for another snowstorm.  If I had to pick, I'd rather have a Thursday/Friday off than a Tuesday/Wednesday. :)

Even the concept of having "Snow Days" is weird to me.  Since I was homeschooled my whole life, I never really had to take a day off because I couldn't get to the school.  When your books are in the living room, the transit time is pretty minimal.  Of course, we got plenty of days "off" for other things (debate tournaments, museum days, etc.), and I wouldn't be surprised if there were a few days here or there taken off to go play in the snow.  But those weren't days taken off because I physically couldn't make it to the school building.

Bizarrely, we're similarly situated here - we live on-campus so even when there's plenty of snow I just have to walk to campus past the basketball arena.  It might take awhile for me to make the walk, but I don't think there's ever been a time when I couldn't walk to campus if I had to.  But even if I can make it to campus, plenty of my students commute in from KC or Overland Park and it would be unsafe for them to drive so far.  I'm glad they cancelled classes.

Of course, since I'm a grad student, my work is never really "done", even if I get a day off teaching.  But I might ignore some work tomorrow for a bit and play outside with James and Joy.  Maybe drink some hot chocolate too.  Seems like it'll be a good day for that sort of thing.  We should have snow days more often. ;-)

~Benjamin


Monday, February 18, 2013

Blizzards vs. Blizzard Cakes

So recently it was my birthday.  I laughed, I cried, it moved me Bob, and all suchlike things were true.  And, in return to form, I decided to get a Blizzard Cake from Dairy Queen.  We've been munching on it for the past few days now and - yummy! - still have some to go.

But while eating this ice cream delicacy, I started wondering what would be cheaper: A mondo-sized blizzard cake or a bunch of individual blizzards?  Honestly, I assumed the cake would be cheaper.  It's larger and can be made at once (so, I would think, lower labor costs than making a bunch of individual blizzards one at a time).  But, since this problem is quantifiable (unlike most of what I work with, experimental philosophy notwithstanding), I decided to run the math.

Dairy Queen serves two sizes of Blizzard Cakes: 8 inches and 10 inches.  We opted for the 10-inch "Cookie Dough" cake at a (pre-tax) price of $25.99.  Unfortunately, the cake itself doesn't include its own weight on the label but DQ's Nutrition Information website gives us the information we need.  Therein (after clicking on DQ Cakes and selecting the appropriate 10 inch variety), we are told that 1/10 of the cake weighs 306 g.  (There is some ambiguity here since my cake is definitely labeled "Cookie Dough Blizzard Cake" yet the nutritional information is for "Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough" - I think it's likely that these two cakes are actually the same, label variance notwithstanding, but that could be an error on my part).  Regardless, if 1/10 of the cake weighs 306 g, then 10/10 of the cake weighs 3060 g.  This is just a hair under 6 3/4 lbs - and although I didn't weigh the cake when I first bought it, this number seems plausible.  So 3060 g of DQ Blizzard Cake costs $25.99.

Now we just compare that cost to a requisite amount of Blizzards.  Since the cake weighs 3060 g, and large Blizzards are 21 oz, we need to convert.  21 oz is just about 595 grams, and a decent cost estimate is that a large blizzard costs $4.  (There's a nontrivial amount of regional variation there, as well as the fact that BOGO coupons are [relatively] easily had, or other sales, etc.).  3060 / 595 = 5.14, meaning we'd need to buy 5.14 large blizzards to get an equivalent amount of ice cream to one 10-inch cake.  5.14 blizzards would cost us $20.56.

So we could spend $20.56 buying 5.14 Blizzards (or, more realistically, $20 buying 5 Blizzards) or we could spend $25.99 buying the same amount of ice cream as a Blizzard cake.

I grant that there are aesthetic differences, or that one might prefer cakes to cups of ice cream, or any number of other differences justifying the cost difference might obtain.  Nonetheless, the price difference between cakes and Blizzards is nontrivial; buying a Blizzard Cake costs 21% more than just buying the equivalent amount of Blizzards.  Put another way, buying individual Blizzards you could buy a cake's worth of ice cream plus an extra Blizzard (thus getting yourself an extra 21 oz of ice cream) for the same price as one cake.  I don't know about y'all, but next birthday I might just forgo the cake altogether and get 6 Blizzards instead.

Let me know if I messed up the math.  Meantime, I'm going to eat some leftover Blizzard cake. :-p

~Benjamin

Saturday, November 3, 2012

My two theses...

As part of getting my PhD (in philosophy) and going ABD, I have to write and orally defend two theses to the members of my dissertation committee.  I haven't defended the theses yet, but they've been approved for me to defend later this semester.  I thought I'd post them here.  Unlike, say, Luther's theses, mine are long(-ish) paragraphs rather than a series of single sentences.  I chose to write one thesis on a problem from historical philosophy and the other on a topic in value theory.  You can read the whole text below, but I'll offer my own short summaries in the following paragraph.

The first thesis has to do with Aristotle's understanding of honesty.  As surprising as this might be to more contemporary philosophers, Aristotle doesn't really talk about honesty a lot.  It gets a brief mention in the Nicomachean Ethics and another very brief mention in the Eudemian Ethics, but that's really about it.  A philosopher named David Bostock (who does lots of work on Aristotle) believes, to oversimplify, that what Aristotle has to say about honesty is hopelessly unsatisfactory.  So in this thesis I try to take other aspects of Aristotelian thought and show that those aspects can help "fill in the blanks" with respect to Aristotle's view of honesty.  My second thesis has to do with Karl Marx and his views of utilitarianism.  Marx strongly rejected the ethical position known as utilitarianism (for reasons which I think were basically correct, but that's neither here nor there).  However more refined versions of utilitarianism have been presented in the many years since Marx wrote his criticisms.  So I wanted to explore whether Marx's arguments applied to all forms of utilitarianism or only to the Bentham/Mill versions of utilitarianism that were floating around at the time Marx was alive.  I've always had a bit of an interest in Karl Popper's negative utilitarianism, so I examined it and I'm arguing that Marx's arguments fail to undermine negative utilitarianism.  (So although I don't think negative utilitarianism is the correct ethical theory, I do think that Marx's arguments against utilitarianism don't show why negative utilitarianism is incorrect).

That was my own summary of the theses.  The actual text of my two theses (which I'll be defending later this semester) follows:

1.  Bostock argues that Aristotle's account of honesty in Book 4, Chapter 7 of the Nicomachean Ethics is fundamentally flawed. Bostock advances three claims to prove his thesis. First, he argues that when it comes to our own accomplishments, Aristotle's account is incapable of covering the full range of possible misstatements. Second, Bostock argues that honesty is not in fact confined to statements about one's own achievements in the first place and thus that Aristotle was wrong to so limit it. Third and finally, Bostock argues that honesty does not lie as a mean between two vices and, as such, cannot be accommodated in an Aristotelian ethical system. I answer that the strongest response Aristotle could offer to these charges is to conceptualize honesty as also being a facet of distributive justice as addressed in the Nicomachean Ethics Book 5, Chapters 2 and 3 (and, as such, honesty entails giving each person what she is due). If accepted, this Aristotelian conception of honesty would, on its own terms, be capable of covering the full logical space of possible misstatements about ourselves (either overdescribing, underdescribing, or accurately describing our own achievements). Moreover, such a conception allows us to address instances of dishonesty involving others. Lastly, this conception of honesty entails that honesty can be considered as a mean between two vices; the mean is to reveal what is appropriate, and its associated vices are to reveal too much or not enough according to the degree of honesty one's interlocutor is entitled to.

2.  Marx offers three main arguments against utilitarianism, particularly Bentham's utilitarianism. First, in Chapter 3, §6C of the Young Marx's German Ideology he argues that utilitarianism justifies current capitalistic economic systems and, thus, is insufficiently revolutionary. Second, in the same chapter and section of the German Ideology Marx argues that utilitarianism considers usefulness to be of sole importance to the detriment of other important factors in our lives. Third, in the Mature Marx's Capital (Vol 1, Chapter 6) he criticizes the individualism which he sees as being inherent in utilitarianism. I reply that Karl Popper's conception of negative utilitarianism is not subject to these criticisms which Marx puts forth. Briefly, Popper argues that there is an asymmetry between alleviating pain and producing happiness – thus, what morally matters most is alleviating pain and suffering. As such, under Popper's conception of negative utilitarianism, any harmful aspects of capitalism will not be justified and negative utilitarianism would indeed be revolutionary. Further, Popper’s negative utilitarianism is inherently designed to avoid untoward individualism. Finally, Popper’s negative utilitarianism includes not just a principle of negative utility but also recognizes the worthiness of goals other than alleviating pain. These include, for Popper, a principle of societal tolerance and a principle of avoiding societal tyranny. As such, Marx's three main criticisms of utilitarianism fail to undermine negative utilitarianism.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Secret of the Morn

I must confess I have not heretofore understood free verse. I had always thought that this kind of poetry could be written as prose and sound just as eloquent. But for the first time, I am stuck with words to write that will not form into prose, nor have I the desired vocabulary to rhyme. And so, you are left reading prosaic phrases in poetic form.

The Secret of the Morn

I pull back the curtain to watch the sunrise.
My restless spirit resonates
With the gray scene before my eyes.
"Chirp, Chirp," I hear a little bird.
A small flock of robins have made the tree their rest.
I sit and wonder at the little birds;
Their spirit undampened by the dampness all around.
Merrily they chirp and hop about.
"It's morning! It's morning," they call to one another
Oh! little bird with sunrise on your breast!
What secret of the morning have you found?
They cock their heads in a puzzled way.
And then they begin to sing.
Singing, the secret of the morn.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

New baby pictures!

I thought I'd try to avoid spamming readers with photos of James (who is, of course, the cutest baby in the world.)  Since that's too much work, though, I thought I'd take the easier way out.  Photos of James will be on my flickr site.  The set of photos for baby James is, currently, here.  My general flickr site is, of course, here.  So if you'd like to see cute baby pictures, go to Flickr and check 'em out.  Here's a teaser or two... :-)



That's his philosophical look, of course... :-)
We love him very much.  We think he might be starting to get a bit of a schedule down.  If so, that will be great news for his poor tired parents. :-p

~Benjamin